A Pigeon Called Doolittle

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By Jan R. Bussie

As much as any nine year old boy could, I loved the seemingly endless days of summer fun while living at Koontz Lake. The sad days of the war years were coming to an end and there was a marked improvement in the post-war economic outlook. The war effort had kindled an interest in world military aircraft, and savvy manufacturers like “Bild-A-Set” in Chicago, with their ace designer Joe Ott, saw a profit potential in model airplanes and began producing kits. These kits were very expensive so my brothers and I began collecting a war plane glider series that came in every box of a popular breakfast cereal.

Joe Ott “Bild-A-Set” P-51 Box and Contents

Joe Ott “Bild-A-Set” P-51 box and contents

These models consisted of a thin sheet of cardboard about nine inches square. The outline of the entire plane was painted on the sheet in authentic wartime colors. The builder would cut out the model and assemble it according to the vague instructions supplied. There was no gluing required, since small tabs held it together and it fit quite well. When the two profile fuselage halves were folded together, a slot in the nose was revealed, and the builder was required to slip a penny in it. The penny was just the right weight to balance the model’s center of gravity for steady flight and it also acted as a shock absorber if it crashed on its nose. My best guess is there were at least ten different models produced before the series was terminated.


Collection of Cereal Box Premium Aircraft

Since I was the youngest of the brothers, pecking order and a lack of seniority dictated that I would inherit the much used and tattered remnants of my brother’s discarded planes to “Fly”. We often flew our gliders in a vacant lot near our tiny Community Church whenever good flying conditions prevailed. I can remember how my brother’s planes would soar magnificently over head performing graceful loops and swooping “barrel rolls” under sunny Indiana skies.


Instructions for Cereal Box Glider Assembly

Try as I may I could not duplicate the majestic flights that my brothers were achieving. Every time I would launch my model it would tumble out of control and crash miserably at my feet. One Sunday afternoon, long after church was over, our Pastor was out walking with his wife and spotted me sitting alone on a stump while my brothers flew their planes. I can still see him in his dark suit and tie as he strode toward me. He smiled and said “Jan, why aren’t you flying your plane?” I explained to him the performance difficulty I was having with my Zero glider. I handed him the model and he studied it for a few moments. Suddenly he said, “Come with Me.” I followed the Pastor and his wife to the Parsonage and into his study. The first thing I saw was a complete collection of the glider series fighter planes in pristine condition and flight-ready, hanging from threads in the ceiling! As I studied the planes, the Pastor began rummaging thru his desk as though he were looking for something. Soon he located a cardboard sheet and handed it to me. I recognized it immediately the Zero glider from the cereal collection. He said, “Here, I have one of these all ready, so this one is yours!”


Recent reproduction of the Jack Armstrong Wheaties Zero Glider

I thanked him profusely and rushed home to assemble my new plane. It was during assembly that I discovered why my first Zero was such a poor performer. It did not have a penny in its nose slot! A quick search of my Mother’s purse resulted in a shiny new penny and the problem was solved. With a new-born determination, I returned to the flying field alone with the Zero in hand. This time my model would fly as well or better than my brothers – and it did.

No matter how poorly I threw it , it flew very well and racked up several long flights. It was during one of these long flights that I noticed a large white and gray bird that seemed to come out of no where and dive at my plane, then pull up and dive at it again in what appeared to be a playful manner. Later that day I told my older brother about the brief encounter with the white bird. I asked if he had ever seen it. He looked at me and laughed an “Older Brother Laugh.” As he rode off on his bike he shouted back over his left shoulder, “Any dumb cluck knows that’s one of Kibberman’s Carrier Pigeons!”

I knew that Mr. Kibberman was the man who owned the “Blue Front” General Store just across from the lot where I flew my plane. My curiosity ran wild as I walked from my house to the store to ask him about the bird. As I walked into his store I found him behind his meat counter, grinding hamburger. I said hello, and inquired about his carrier pigeons. He seemed pleased that I was interested in the birds, and began by saying that during the war he raised the birds and trained them to act as “Flying Couriers between Military Field Officers during the din and calamity of battle.” He went on to say that the birds, if properly trained, were far more reliable and faster than a foot messenger. Furthermore, they were not subject to enemy intercept like a radio transmission might be. I then asked him about the large white bird that swooped down at my model. He smiled and replied “Oh I’m sure that was Doolittle. I named him after Jimmy Doolittle. He can be quite playful at times.” He went on to say that Doolittle had flown many combat missions during the war. As he wiped the ground meat from his hands, he motioned towards the front door and asked, “Would you like to meet Doolittle?” I said “Yes I would!” and I followed the old man outside. As we stood on the front steps he looked up at the tall tree line that surrounded us and called “Kdddddrrooo” several times. In a few seconds the urgent beat of wings filled the air as the magnificent white and gray Doolittle landed unerringly on the old man’s shoulder. Doolittle immediately began to study me with his intense black eyes as he made a pleasant cooing sound.

After visiting with the old man and his birds for a while I left for home. As I walked I remember thinking about what he had told me about “Calling the bird to me any time I wanted to see him”. As I walked I practiced the “Kddddddrrrooo” call just like Kibberman did, and dreamed of flying my models with Doolittle, the real live friendly flying model.

A few days later I rode my bike past the store and scanned the tree tops for Doolittle. As I rode I called him several times. In less than a minute a white streak passed me from behind and close to my right shoulder. It was Doolittle! He made a steep 180-degree left turn in front of me at eye level. Fascinated, I watched as he increased his angle of attack, lowered his landing gear and began flapping his wings in a quick reverse circular motion to loose speed and land on my left shoulder.

It quickly became apparent to both of us that Doolittle had not been properly trained by the Air Force on the subject of “Moving Object Landings” and he did not fully understand the importance of factoring in the “Relative Wind” created by moving landing sites. Doolittle did prove to be in possession of good flying judgment however, and demonstrated it by aborting his landing attempt at the last second. I watched as he apparently took note of our unusually high closure rate that could have resulted in a collision of considerable magnitude. At the last second Doolittle added full power, retracted his gear and performed a “Bolter.” He flew a few yards behind me, did a 180-degree left turn and landed effortlessly into the wind on my left shoulder. And from that day on it would be his standard operating procedure for moving bike landings.

By the next summer Doolittle and I were spending a lot of time together at the flying field. Usually sometime after I arrived he would fly in to greet me. During one of our long winters I built several Monogram models, along with a stick and tissue rubber powered Corsair by “Bild-A-Set”. One of Doolittle’s favorites was a simple rubber-powered balsa free-flight model with decent duration and performance.

Doolittle would lurk high and unseen somewhere in the tree line waiting for the “Maximum Tactical Advantage Window”—-and then launch an all out airborne attack on that particular model. The model had a good power to weight ratio and during the powered run would climb vertically to at least 100 feet. It would then soar gracefully in thermals for long periods of time. Doolittle, being the skilled aviator that he was, would prudently wait for the prop to stop, and then make his diving high speed “interception” from behind on the “Enemy Aircraft” that had violated his airspace. (Long ago, during one of his particularly close-in high-speed interceptions of this model as it powered its way to altitude, Doolittle learned to respect a spinning propeller. During this brief encounter with the prop he lost some wing tip feathers and dented his pride, but thankfully he was not injured)

One summer later, on a hot muggy August afternoon, I was returning home from the south bay of the lake on foot after flying my J3 Cub with some friends. Dark and ominous clouds boiled to great altitudes in the west, blotting out the setting sun. At that moment I knew that the inky blackness of the night would overtake me before I arrived home. The area around the lake during the day was a fairly safe haven, but at night it was pitch black along the dirt roads and trails we traveled. As I hurried along the trail that traced the edge of the lake I began to worry about my situation. I did not have my dog, King, or my 10 gauge shotgun with me on this night. I had previously survived an attack by a pack of hungry, wild, “Devil Dogs” and feared an attack like that again. The wind was beginning to gust higher, and I could see frequent flashes of lightning and heard thunder to the west of me. The flashes helped illuminate the trail and I soon found myself in front of Doolittle’s place. I was very apprehensive and concerned at this point and called for Doolittle to keep me company. I called to him many time as I both ran and walked, but I was sure that he would not hear me due to the wind, rain and thunder. Suddenly I felt the familiar weight of Doolittle as he landed on my right shoulder. I can not describe the relief that swept through me at that very moment when my feathered friend had braved the torrents of rain, wind gusts, thunder and deadly electrical discharges to come to me when I called. At the very height of the storm Doolittle and I doggedly pressed on regardless, while the model I was carrying was swept away into the darkness by a ferocious wind gust.

During flashes of lightning I could see Doolittle lift a wing occasionally to steady himself as the winds buffeted us, yet in the midst of the calamity he showed no fear. He probably concluded that flying in a line of severe thunderstorms was like a walk in the park compared to the danger involved during his flights along the front lines of combat.

Doolittle seemed to sense my fear and stayed with me all the way home. Just as I set foot in my front yard, Doolittle launched himself into the night, the storm, and the inky blackness. Years later I would realize why he had left so abruptly. Sixty years ago on that stormy night he was on a mission to deliver a young lad home to safety. He held on to my shoulder to guide me along and keep me steady as we fought our war with the winds. After his mission was over, the old war bird simply did what he was trained to do. He flew back home with the help of a forty knot wind blowing on his tail feathers, secure in the knowledge that he would not be on the receiving end of enemy ground fire enroute.

Thanks old friend.

Jan Bussie

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